The Bobbed Haired Bandit

A True Story of Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York

394 pages

45 illustrations

February, 2006

ISBN: 9780814719800



Also available in




Stephen Duncombe teaches politics and history of media and culture at the Gallatin School of New York University. He is author of Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture and editor of the Cultural Resistance Reader.

All books by Stephen Duncombe

Andrew Mattson teaches American history and media studies at the State University of New York at Old Westbury.

All books by Andrew Mattson

Ripped straight from the headlines of the Jazz Age, The Bobbed Haired Bandit is a tale of flappers and fast cars, of sex and morality. In the spring of 1924, a poor, 19-year-old laundress from Brooklyn robbed a string of New York grocery stores with a “baby automatic,” a fur coat, and a fashionable bobbed hairdo. Celia Cooney’s crimes made national news, with the likes of Ring Lardner and Walter Lippman writing about her exploits for enthralled readers.

The Bobbed Haired Bandit brings to life a world of great wealth and poverty, of Prohibition and class conflict. With her husband Ed at her side, Celia raised herself from a life of drudgery to become a celebrity in her own pulp-fiction novel, a role she consciously cultivated. She also launched the largest manhunt in New York City's history, humiliating the police with daring crimes and taunting notes.

Sifting through conflicting accounts, Stephen Duncombe and Andrew Mattson show how Celia's story was used to explain the world, to wage cultural battles, to further political interest, and above all, to sell newspapers. To progressives, she was an example of what happens when a community doesn't protect its children. To conservatives, she symbolized a permissive society that gave too much freedom to the young, poor, and female. These competing stories distill the tensions of the time.

In a gripping account that reads like a detective serial, Duncombe and Mattson have culled newspaper reports, court records, interviews with Celia's sons, and even popular songs and jokes to capture what William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper called “the strangest, weirdest, most dramatic, most tragic, human interest story ever told.”


  • “With crisp prose and a lively selection of newspaper photographs, headlines, cartoons, and excerpts, authors Stephen Duncombe and Andrew Mattson tell a story of an outlaw couple and, through them, the story of an era.”

    Boston Globe

  • “A pre-Bonnie and Clyde story . . . in all its tacky, trailer park intrigue.”

    Blue Ridge Business Journal

  • “Brings alive the darker side of flapper-era Manhattan.”

    Entertainment Weekly

  • “It could have come out of Hollywood. . . . Stephen Duncombe and Andrew Mattson tell the story of this largely unremembered saga of crime and pursuit. The writing has velocity, and the amazing plot, with all its twists and turns, is alone worth the admission. More than just narrative history, the book is about representation—the multiple ways that the crime was reported in the New York press and ‘instrumentalized and mobilized’ for a variety of causes.”

    Journal of American History

  • The Bobbed Haired Bandit is a fun read about a forgotten episode.”